There’s something to be said for focus. Too many games, good and bad, fall over themselves in a rush to provide us with as many flavors as possible, cramming in half-baked ideas just to prolong running times and expand the experience. Sometimes this works; other times, it results in a chaotic mess of contradictory impulses, a flow interrupted by breakers every 10 feet.
Unravel does not suffer from this problem. Everything you need to know is introduced in the first five minutes, every level moves in a straight line from beginning to end, and the only collectibles are unobtrusive and easily ignored. Simplicity is Unravel’s defining characteristic, from its puzzles to its aesthetic to its central narrative—a melancholic, ambiguous look back at the life of a family. There are a few modest surprises, but the fundamentals never change. It’s a striking design choice, which, in its best moments, achieves a Zen-like purity of intent.
Unravel stars Yarny, a small creature made out of yarn who runs and knots its way over various landscapes, solving puzzles as he goes. The puzzles nearly always revolve around figuring out how to keep moving forward. Yarny’s goal is to reach the end of the level, and each one is full of logs, switches, stones, birds, and other hazards. Yarny has a limited set of tools to circumvent these obstacles. It can jump, lasso some yarn onto hooks, and tie knots, using its own body to build lines across chasms and swing from great heights. That’s pretty much it.
It’s a toolset that allows for an impressive variety of challenges. At times, these challenges edge toward the obscure, as the visuals—gorgeous, near photo-realistic natural environments punctuated by man-made distractions—don’t always clearly differentiate between movable objects and backgrounds. A handful of later sequences rely on reflex and timing to an obscure, and sometimes infuriating, degree, punishing players with instant death for seemingly unavoidable failures. Thankfully, checkpoints are placed at regular intervals, and death usually only amounts to a few seconds of lost progress.
As to the point of that progress: Unravel begins with a scene of an elderly woman in her home, looking at framed photos before climbing the stairs to the second floor. A ball of yarn drops out of the basket she’s carrying, and Yarny is born. Using various pictures, Yarny travels to the forest, the beach, and other darker areas, searching for tokens which, when attached to a book in what amounts to the game’s central hub, bring back photos of a family hiking, fishing, or simply walking through nature.
Anyone who watches these elements and expects a cohesive narrative to form will be disappointed. Unravel is more concerned with mood than specifics, and the combination of its haunting yet soothing music with occasional images of families engaged in familiar activities is evocative without ever being entirely coherent. Still, as the places Yarny visits become increasingly challenging and hostile, the journey builds an emotional arc that more or less transcends the need for plot. The shifts in tone are more effective for their generality, allowing the player to identify events in whatever way means the most to them.
Still, there are enough elements here that approach a clear story that it’s hard not to wish for either a little more clarity or a lot more ambiguity. If Unravel gains strength from its single-mindedness, it also never succeeds at becoming more than what it seems: a modest, melancholic but ultimately heartwarming effort. The warmth and care the design team put into every aspect of the game is undeniable, and if that love can sometimes be overbearing in its sentiment, the game’s fundamental charm serves as excellent compensation.